With one small leap, one swift kick and a declaration that "all our cars are guaranteed to be rusting out," Alan Tetervin reamed his right sneaker through the left rear fender of a red '68 Chevy Impala covertible.
A wisp of brown dust mushroomed over the hubcap, and the cloud cleared to reveal a hole big enough to engorge a six-pack of Rolling Rock Ponies.
"You got here a little too late," Tetervin announced. "This clunker was smoking great until it got warmed up."
Indeed, most of the previously owned beauts that are squashed into the Arlington lot of Colonel Clunker's Rent-a-Junker - "The Walking Man's Friend" - have that desperately abused look. What can you really expect of cars that rent for $40 a week - $50 with air?
As Colonel says, "It's a Ride!!"
"Nobody in their right mind - except for my father - would fix up cars like this so they're safe to drive," Tetervin said.
"Look at the classic dents here," added his partner, John Staples, pointing to a huge gash over the left headlights of a blue '70 Pontiac Catalina. "We had chrome trim on this baby but it was bent and we just tore it off. We don't paint 'em, we don't sweep 'em out, we don't clean the ashtrays; we just tell people "The key's in it and your try it.'"
Tetervin, 27, and Staples, 34, who both graduated from local high schools and went on to become respectively a car mechanic with a sociology degree and a real estate salesman, began their wacko business three months ago. Already they claim they can barely keep up with the demand, with all the word-of-mouth legend their flyers and small newspaper ads have generated. "We rent to dentists, lawyers, a Colonel in the Army who used to be stationed in Puerto Rico, a Mexican doctor and his wife, a concrete mason, you name it, we got it," said Staples, who was wearing a blue T-shirt emblazoned "Look Out - I'm a Used Car Salesman."
"One guy told us he was spending $50 a week on cab fares, and why not have a clunker out front of the house keeping the curb warm at night. Big business during prom week. I mean, is this the classy way to go to the prom or what?" He pointed to a retired beige Plymouth taxicob.
"Look at this one." said Tetervin, hopping over to a tan '70 Ford Custom that had once been a public transportation vehicle in Hartford County, Md. He rolled down the window to reveal a back seat akin to a Jackson Pollock canvas. "Traffic pole painters used this car."
The car lot - at 3100 N. 10th St., with the Colonel's derbied, monocled, mustachioed face peering over it - is heaped with cars: an aqua and white '68 Buick Skylark with Towson State College parking stickers; a green and brown nine-passernger '72 Mercury station wagon; a '67 Oldsmobile Cutlass with air conditioning.
"We just lost a '67 red Caddies from our fleet inventory," Staples said. "This guy was renting it week after week and he kept telling us he had to have it, so what could we do?"
Customers use as much hyperbole in praising the Colonel as the Colonel's two super non-salesman don't use it in selling their services. It's a decided case of anti-style.
Or, as one customer put it, anti-cool:
"People just love getting in cars that give them the image of a greater," said Jay Rosenberg, a computer consultant from Rockville. "It's so cool it's anti-cool, not to mention that they're giving you a valuable commodity - transportation - at a fraction of the price you'd expect to pay. I've rented from them when my car was in the shop, and I've got a friend coming over here from London soon and I plan to rent him a junker for the week he's here."
To most used car dealers - like Jim Hamner of Arlington's Cavalier Cars - "clunkers are clunkers and I won't touch them. I've got to spend between three and five hundreds to get something that I can sell."
In contrast, Tetervin and Staples won't spend more than $300 for a car. Above that, they claim, you're leaving the realm of intrinsic value for cosmetics.
"A lot of people think we're crazy for doing this," said Tetervin. "But I tell you that my father had a '55 Plymouth - you ever notice how many cabs are Plymouths? - and he kept records on it and you'd be amazed how after about four years the cost of keeping an American car on the road goes way down. We can put new brakes and tires and batteries and mufflers on these things and they'll drive forever. You know, overhead cams and fancy things like that are nice because they give you great pick-up, but you have to buy those cars back every three years, they cost so much to keep up. Give me an old American clunker anytime.
"That's right," said Staples. "My dad would still be driving his '63 Valiant if I hadn't wrecked it. Old cars are great. Who cares if the seat is all cut up? We'll give you a little towel to put over the holes."
Staples and Tetervin refused to say exactly how many cars they have to rent, only that the clunkers came with 300 free miles a week and you pay for the gas.
"Why give the competition amunition?" said Tetervin.
"We know we're the cheapest place in the world," said Staples, walking into their tiny office.
On the wall the ubiquitous Colonel peered down from a perch near an Arlington Chamber of Commerce plaque, a clock that runs backwards, a state car rental agency permit and a hand-lettered sign:
"Showmanship is a sales tool."